Children's Toy & Media Reviews Since 1978

Time Shift your TV: Hero or Heroine?

The recent successes of the film Frozen, focusing on young strong-willed Anna, and the movie Brave, starring arrow-wielding  Princess Merida, and Nickelodeon’s Legend of  Korra  series, about a strong-willed girl fighting for good in the world, make it seem as though strong female heroines are plentiful in film and on TV. But that’s not true. They are still a rarity.

A Slate essay lamenting the lack of female representation in children’s films and television shows points to research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media that proves the male-female imbalance in our popular entertainment is all too “alive and well.”

Females are not as prevalent as males on screen. By a lot.

In family films, the percentage of female characters is 28.3%; in primetime programs: 38.9%; and in children’s shows 30.8%.

So, roughly, for every one Dora the Explorer, there are two Bob the Builders (No offense, Bob.)

One of the more interesting findings in all of this, points out Slate, is that girls will watch stories about boys. But boys won’t watch stories about girls. That’s the prevailing thinking among those who create media for kids.

I know that my three sons (and my husband) count Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, with kind and strong lead character Belle, as one of the all-time great films of their childhood, one they enjoyed as much as any Robin Hood or Peter Pan. Or Aladdin, Hercules or Tarzan.

What makes boys watch a show or a film, according to Slate, are three main components:  Active heroines, humor and emotional resonance.  Sofia the First, Disney Jr.’s new show about a commoner girl who becomes royalty, draws 42% boy viewers. And Doc McStuffins, a Disney Jr. show about a six-year-old girl who heals stuffed animals and toys, pulls in an audience that is made up of 47% boys in the 2 to 5 age range.

So it can happen. And it is happening. But we’re not there, yet. For all the great female characters we have now, we still don’t have enough. Female characters are still sidelined, stereotyped, and sexualized in popular entertainment content, says the research.

Why is it so important? Because if strong smart female images are missing from onscreen, and it means that young girls are not being inspired to become strong, smart females, particularly in the important STEM fields in real life. This is also true in all areas where diversity it lacking.

Girls – and boys – need more aspirational role models. They need to see characters who are decision-makers, leaders and scientists. Increase those numbers on screen and perhaps the ambitions and career aspirations will increase off screen.

Actress Geena Davis, founder of her media institute, frequently states, “If she can see it, she can be it.” And so can he.